Tag Archives: whisky

Winter Reading

As the nights get longer and the days colder one might be tempted to spend time on the couch or in a favorite chair, sipping tea (or perhaps brandy, or whisky!*), and reading.  Here are a few suggestions for winter reading as we usher out 2018 and welcome in a new year:

The Western Wind, by Samantha Harvey – This short novel (294 pages) describes in colorful detail life in the medieval village of Oakham during four days in February of 1491.  The village priest, John Reve, is the story’s main protagonist.  Part theologian, part pastor, part Sherlock Holmes, he struggles to understand how the body of a villager ended up in the river, drowned.  Fate or misfortune?  A Divine Decree fulfilled or a human plot gone awry?  The author’s beautiful prose will lead you backwards in time towards the answer to this delightful mystery.

These Truths, A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore – Critics have called this one volume (932 pages) history of the United States a ‘masterpiece.’  Lepore, a professor of American History at Harvard, analyzes key moments in the history of our nation, and ultimately creates a lens we can use to contextualize our current troubled and divisive times.    George Harrison, in his song Any Road (paraphrasing Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) includes the lyric ‘if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.’  Lepore’s point is exactly the opposite – it is by knowing where we’ve come from that we understand where we are, and gain insight into where we should be going.

And last, but buy no means least:

The Death of Truth, by Michiko Kakutani – This series of short essays explores the way truth has historically been both understood and manipulated.  Read together, the chapters provide a devastating critique of the Trump administration’s attempt to reshape   how Americans understand what is real and what is not, and where actual truth resides.

*May I suggest a dram of Lagavulin 16 as the perfect match for a cold night, a warm blanket, and a good book.

And enjoy the reading!!

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, books, civil rights, history, politics, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, winter reading

Festival of Rain?

A classic case of same time, different place. In Israel Sukkoth almost always falls during one of the most beautiful times of year. The heat of the summer has begun to cool, but the rain and cold of winter won’t arrive for another six weeks. What better time to go out of doors, to sit in golden Jerusalem, or somewhere looking out on the hills of the Galilee, in that ancient booth, that memory-box we call a Sukkah? In Jerusalem people walk to and fro holding lulavim and etrogim in ornate cases, in tune with an ancient rhythm of life, appreciative of God’s blessings, feeling close and connected to the natural world and its bounty. Sukkoth in Israel in October – perfect!

But here in the States we are in the midst of one of the rainiest Sukkoth holidays in recent memory, and by the end of the festival it might actually be the rainiest (who keeps track of these things?!)! Tortured temporary booths have collapsed all over, literally bowing to the elements, in a way reflecting what happens to the lulav itself as it gradually decays during the seven days of the festival. I can see my congregation’s grand sukkah from my office window, even as I can see and hear the rain coming down steadily. An incongruity of sound and sight! This is weather to hunker down, the damp and chill, the cold and rain, a fine whisky’s warmth keeping the weather at bay.

The ancient sages were prepared. Even though they created our rituals in a different place and climate, they knew from the capricious nature of weather. It might rain, even on Sukkoth! Even in Israel! And so, being the pragmatic scholars that they were, they allowed the Jews to leave their temporary dwellings and return to a place that would be dry and safe and warm. But they were logicians! They demanded, perhaps needed a determinant factor, a clear test that could be passed or failed. And what was it? The soup! Could there be a more Jewish answer? This from the Mishnah (Tractate Sukkah, 2:9): “If rain falls, when may they clear out of the sukkah? From the time when the soup would be spoiled!”

We might add, the same for the scotch!

And that, too, is perfect!

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, celebration, community, holidays, Jewish festivals

The Rabbi Incognito

Just back from a fabulous almost 2 week vacation.  Yes, it is important to get out of the office, although email blurs exactly what ‘getting away’ means these days.  But for a rabbi (or I imagine pretty much any clergy person) it is also important, every once in a while, to simply not be recognized.  To be able to walk down a street, go to a restaurant, or a bar, or a store, and be fairly certain that you are not going to run into anyone you know. (This is also, by the way, good for the rabbi’s spouse!)

This is one of the dilemmas of being a public figure.  And it is a good problem!  People want to say hi, to check in, to touch base, to reach out.  And their intentions are genuine, and they are genuinely nice people, and the truth is I am a friendly person and enjoy running into people and the quick 2 minute how are you? good to see you.  I really do.

But there is something to be said for being under the radar every once in a while.  And when I travel I tend to travel, rabbi-wise, incognito (from the Latin – ‘in’ (not) and ‘cognitus’ (known).  An example.  On airplanes, when sitting next to a person I do not know who asks me what I do for a living, I will often parry the question by saying “I work in human services.”  Why?  Because I know from experience that once I say I am a rabbi all sorts of bizarre conversations can ensue, and I don’t want to spend my entire two hours on the airplane talking theology with someone I don’t know.  That simple.  

So for almost two weeks now I haven’t been ‘the rabbi.’  And here is the paradox:  in not being the rabbi, I can simply be Steve; in simply being Steve, I am ultimately a better rabbi.  

That being said, one quick anecdote.  Some years ago I traveled to Scotland with 5 of my closest friends from college.  We had a wonderful time, toured distilleries, played cards, fished for salmon, played golf.  One round of golf played on a very rustic links course outside of Dufftown (in the Highlands for you whisky enthusiasts) ended with two of my friends and I sitting at the clubhouse bar having a pint.  The gentleman who ran the course (and the bar) was a gregarious fellow, engaging us in conversation.  Of course it didn’t take long for him to ask us what we did back in the States.  My one friend sells insurance.  The other was in the real estate business.  And I told the truth – “I am a rabbi,” I said somewhat hesitantly.  

I will always remember his response.  He looked at us thoughtfully for a moment.  Then he said this, looking at us each in turn:  “I’d buy insurance from you, a property from you, and I would come to hear you preach!”

We are still waiting!



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